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Government accused of ‘standing by while Covid cases surge’ in schools

Scottish Labour slams SNP's ‘farcical and dangerous’ ventilation strategy

THE British and Scottish governments have both been warned that they must strengthen their Covid-19 safety strategies for schools, with calls for improved ventilation and other interventions to protect workers as cases rise.

Trade unions in England wrote to Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi over the weekend to make the case for the reintroduction of additional safety measures, while Scottish Labour branded the SNP government’s school ventilation strategy “farcical and dangerous.”

In their letter, the five unions — GMB, Unite, public service union Unison, teachers’ union the NASUWT, and the National Education Union (NEU) — pointed out that several local authorities have reintroduced restrictions to tackle a recent rise in case numbers. 

Children in England aged between 11 and 16 have the highest Covid-19 positivity rate for any age group, according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). 

About one in 15 children in school years 7 to 11 are estimated to have had coronavirus in the week up to October 2, up from one in 20 the previous week, the ONS said.

Union leaders said that a number of protections could be considered including social-distancing measures, the reintroduction of bubbles, avoiding large gatherings and bringing back face coverings in secondary schools.

NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said: “We are concerned that the government is standing by while Covid cases surge across schools.  

“It is evident that more needs to be done — and sooner rather than later — to prevent further massive disruption to children’s education, caused either by children contracting Covid-19 or Covid-related staff absence.”

The unions will also write to all local authorities and directors of public health to ask them to consider taking measures in their areas.

They warned that without such measures, pupils’ health and education, as well as the health of their families and school staff, risk being unnecessarily damaged.

Unite national officer for education Jim Kennedy said: “With winter fast approaching and with Covid still rampant, the whole range of measures to keep schoolchildren safe needs to be deployed — the rising level of infections in schools demand it.”

GMB national officer Avril Chambers warned of an ongoing “denial of the facts from this government.

“School staff have kept our schools open throughout the pandemic — they deserve to stay safe and our children deserve not to have their education interrupted any more than it already has been. The minister needs to act now.”

Responding to the high infection rate among secondary school pupils, Sage member Professor Calum Semple said there is a risk that children in that age group could reach herd immunity through infection rather than vaccination.

“Commentators would usually say it’s ridiculous to aim for herd immunity using natural wild-type infection, because that brings with it disease and damage to children both from acute disease and potentially long Covid,” he said.

A Department for Education spokesman said the measures currently in place “strike a balance between managing transmission risk … and reducing disruption to education by removing the need for close contacts in bubbles to self-isolate and for face coverings to be worn.”

Scottish Labour meanwhile pushed the SNP to deliver an update to Holyrood on its school ventilation plans as it demanded to know what action will be taken in classrooms that fail air quality assessments.

In a coronavirus statement in early August, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that £10 million would be given to councils to provide carbon dioxide monitoring for all schools and daycare services, as she said that school ventilation guidance was being strengthened.

But Scottish Labour claimed that not enough has been done, and pointed out that ozone disinfecting machines have been bought for every school in Wales.

Michael Marra MSP said: “That the SNP’s ventilation strategy currently amounts to keeping the windows open is both farcical and dangerous.

“We simply cannot have children huddled together in freezing classrooms this winter.

“Make no mistake — failure to act now will put our pupils, teachers and their families in danger.”

Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said that the money for CO2 monitoring was on top of £90m in logistics funding that had already been provided to councils.

She said that local authorities have already reported good progress in addressing ventilation issues in schools.

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